Geetie Singh is this week’s Eco Hero someone who was a champion of sustainable and organic food years before others knew it was an issue. After a decade working in the restaurant industry, Geetie opened the Duke of Cambridge in 1998 the first pub to be certified organic. She takes a strong stand on sustainability issues and has led the way in sourcing, provenance and standards.
Geetie Singh was a champion of sustainable and organic food years before others knew it was an issue. After a decade working in the restaurant industry, Geetie opened the Duke of Cambridge in 1998 the first pub to be certified organic. She takes a strong stand on sustainability issues and has led the way in sourcing, provenance and standards. She is now training others to give something back to the community. She is a great host to the Organic Food Awards and is generally a champion of all things organic. She juggles family life and work life, has young children, and is always smiling, approachable and helpful, giving up her time to chat. The Duke of Cambridge created a successful business model that combined delicious food with high environmental and ethical standards. Today it continues to lead the green restaurant business, proving that you can still turn a profit when you commit to sustainability.
Writer Anna Shepard gets her take on the issues.
How would you describe yourself?
Restaurateur and campaigner
What is your mission?
To begin with my mission was to prove that sustainable restaurants could be successful, while also being delicious and affordable. I’d love to say that this has changed, that it’s no longer required, but sadly, this model of a profit turning sustainable restaurant is still required. It’s quite shocking how most restaurants behave. You pay a lot of money for food and you expect your meat to be good quality, humanely reared, but it’s quite horrific once you start asking questions.
Have you been impressed by other restaurants?
Konstam, which is now closed, bought all its food from within a tiny radius in London which was a unique mission, and Bordeaux Quay in Bristol is another place I really admire (www.bordeaux-quay.co.uk).
What challenges do restaurants face when becoming greener?
If you don’t know anything about sustainability, it can be hard to know where to start. For me, it was easy. I had grown up in a commune that was sustainably driven. I understood what it all meant. Ten years on, there are now so many places to get help there’s really no excuse – it’s handed to you on a plate. There are networks such as Soil Association’s Food for Life program or the Sustainable Restaurant Association. It costs money, but not a huge amount and in return you are given a complete supply chain and all the help you could need.
Your biggest success?
Most of all, I’ve been thrilled by the change in our political culture that has enabled me – and what I’m saying – to be taken very seriously. At the beginning, I fought the hippy label, but within ten years, I was being recognized by the establishment. To be invited onto the London Food Board and also onto Hilary Benn’s Food Council was a huge step forward.
Any new projects underway?
We’re going to be doing a lot more with schools over the next year. We’re working on providing sustainable menus for school kitchens, but not only that, we want to work with the kids to give them a restaurant experience as part of their curriculum work.
What lesson have you learned?
As an entrepreneur you have to keep thinking and looking, but don’t leap until it absolutely gets you in the gut and you are completely obsessed by a project. You can’t just think, well this might work; you have to be really passionate about it.
Is organic important to you?
Most of all, I wanted to create a restaurant that would have a positive effect on the environment. The first step to doing this is to source as much as possible organically as that is going to have the biggest impact. I wanted to go beyond that and recycle and compost, but first and foremost I focused on organic as it’s a way of improving our planet; it’s a beneficial system. It’s also the only way we’re going to maintain the world as we know it and feed everyone.
Can organic be for everyone?
Yes, because it doesn’t have to be expensive. Supermarkets have a part to play in the premium they put on organic food, driving prices up and tainting organic with being unachievably expensive. Yes, organic will be a little more, but if you shop in a savvy way, it should be manageable. You need to buy seasonally, locally, and you need to buy less rather than overbuying from supermarkets. We’ve become so used to cheap food, we think prices should always be low, but there’s always a price to pay, sometimes through taxes or pollution. In the long term, organic works out as cheaper because you’re not paying for it elsewhere.
What green principles do you live by?
I never shop in supermarkets; I only buy organic food in small, local shops. About 95 percent of the clothes I buy for myself and my daughter, along with furniture and other stuff, is organic, fair-trade, handmade or second-hand. I also buy organic dog food, which is a lot more expensive, but that’s my punishment for having an unenvironmentally-friendly pet.
Do you ever wish you were back in a commune?
I’d love my daughter to experience communal living, yes, it’s an amazing way to grow up, but I personally might struggle with it now. I’m a bit too controlling; I like everything just so. My house is very tidy and organized and you can’t do that in a shared house. You have to tolerate other people’s ways of wanting to live. On the upside, you only cook once a month; most of the time, you get cooked for.
What philosophy would you like to pass on to your daughter?
To be completely true and honest. Also, to try to see yourself as a member of a society and to have a sense of responsibility towards that society.
Does climate change keep you awake at night?
I’m deeply concerned about climate change. Business is responsible for the biggest impact, which is why I’ve spent the last 25 years establishing a sustainable business model. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a child because I was so frightened about the world she’d be coming into, so it has surprised me that I feel relaxed about it. The way I look at it now, Mabel is experiencing a privileged life. Although we have no way of guessing what the world will be like in 40 years time, compared to the majority of people on this planet, she will have lived a privileged life beyond what many people can know.
Who is your eco hero?
There are so many. Patrick Holden is one. Also Anita Roddick. By being so vocal about the values behind The Body Shop, she enabled me to raise money with a business plan that was values driven. People, planet, profit was a brilliant mission statement. I should also mention my parents and everyone I grew up with in the commune; they inspired me to be true to my beliefs.